Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco

Composers Inc: Season Finale at Old First Presbyterian Church

The concluding concert in Composers Inc.’s season took place on April 24 at San Francisco’s Old First Presbyterian Church. Unusually for such an off day, the audience was quite sizable, and included all six composers whose music was being performed that night. The concert began with Eric Chasalow’s set of songs using texts by Anne Sexton, called The Furies. Each movement explored the fury of a new idea, and new kind of fury. The depth of emotion was palpable, and the tape (yes, tape: spliced, cut with a razor blade, sounds generated by test oscillators!) part balanced well with Deborah Norin-Kuehn’s soprano. Chasalow, who flew in from Massachusetts where he teaches at Brandeis University, gives the electro-acoustic elements of his composition a lyrical quality, and adapts them to fit the distinct moods of each song. The first song, The Fury of Beautiful Bones, was quite intense, followed quickly by a calmer but just as intense Fury of Sopranos and Guitars, next there was The Fury of Cooks, which was a rather funnier sort of fury, and ended with the psychotic Fury of Hating Eyes, which almost seems to recount the narrator’s descent into madness.

Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco

Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco

Second on the program was Elinor Armer’s Etude Quasi Cadenza composed for and performed by Lois Brandwynne. The piece alternates slower sections with virtuosic runs up the keyboard, generally following an upward pattern over a fifth-based ostinato/pedal point. An important figure in San Francisco music education, Armer founded and chaired for eleven years the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s composition program.

One of two world premieres on the program, Robert Greenberg’s Lemurs are afraid of Fossas, was inspired by a Nickelodeon show (“Go, Diego, Go!”). In an episode Greenberg watched with his daughter, the protagonist rescues a lemur, remarking is passing that “lemurs are afraid of fossas” (fossas, pronounced “foo-sas,” are a natural predator of lemurs). A duet for piano and cello, the piece is a lively and playful setting of three episodes relating to the relationship between lemurs and fossas. Each movement has a quirky title: Predating Game, Things That Go Bump In The Night, and The Shadow Know…. While I appreciated the performance, especially the communication between pianist Hadley McCarroll and cellist Monica Scott, I wish someone had thought to lower the piano let at least to half stick. I had to strain to hear the cello through most the piece…

Allen Shearer’s Riffs on a Verse, the program’s second world premiere, was a delightful piece for violin and percussion. It reminded me a little of Harrison’s concert for violin and percussion orchestra. While setting the violin against a battery of assorted percussion instruments may seem an unfair pairing, Kelly Leon’s violin playing had no problem competing with Jack Van Geem’s percussion. Not quite a formal theme and variations, the piece “riffs” on a theme, which does return close to its original form as the “coda” (unless my ears were playing tricks on me!). The violin and percussion parts echoes back and forth, passing ideas to each other, and also worked well together.

Exile, by Martin Rokeach, was commissioned by the California Association of Professional Music Teachers in 1998. Rokeach’s program note expresses his interest in setting poetry with a “moody, psychological quality that suggested unusual instrumentation.” He chose two poems by Brenda Hillman, Exile and Visiting Creature. The songs do have an unusual instrumentation; I can’t recall ever hearing something set for soprano, double bass, and percussion.

The final piece on the program was Sam Nichols’ Refuge. The piece was originally composed in 2009 for the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble as a companion piece to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. One of the first things Nichols established was that he didn’t want to write a fuge. In my pre-concert research, I discovered that the title began as a pun: Nichols was re-imagining a fugue (in Beethoven’s language, and fuge), thus re-fuge. As the title suggests, the piece takes some elements common to contrapuntal writing and reuses them in an imaginative fashion. Instead of setting up a clear contrapuntal texture, the piece begins with a blurry, out-of-focus sound, which moves on into what Nichols calls “a do-it-yourself canon.” At points the whole quartet has the same melody, but they are each playing it at a different speed, with different ornamentation, sometimes close together, other times spread out. The piece was quite effective, I enjoyed listening to how the four voices interacted and blended with each other, as well as the creative use of different string-textures including some very high partials in natural harmonics pushing the borders of microtonality.

The concert as a whole presented many different facets of new music; from the humorous through the serious, from pure acoustic music to tape. In new music, this is one of the programmatic aspects I most appreciate as an audience member: the diversity of programming. With so many variables, there is something on the program that will appeal to every audience member’s tastes. Composers Inc. did a wonderful job in both showing this diversity and simultaneously linking the program together. Pieces with similar instrumentation were programmed near each other, performers became familiar figures as the night wore on, and the whole concert had a wonderfully “home-like” feel to it.

Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist